Work Header

The Hitchhiker

Work Text:

Standard fanfic disclaimer that wouldn't last ten seconds in a court of law: These aren't my characters. I'm just borrowing them for, um, typing practice. Yeah, that's it, typing practice. This is an amateur work of fiction; no profit was made from its writing or publication. Originally published in the fanzine Of Dreams and Schemes #23.

The Hitchhiker

The Master/The Incredible Hulk

by Susan M. M.

Southern California, 1984

It was a rainy November afternoon. Max Keller was driving his black van on Highway 5, about a hundred miles north of Los Angeles. A man who looked old enough to be his grandfather, but wasn't, sat in the passenger seat: his travelling companion and teacher, John McAllister. On the dashboard was a small cage, where a hamster ran merrily in his wheel.

McAllister jutted his chin at a solitary figure trodding alongside the road. "Looks like he forgot his umbrella."

Max nodded. He was a young man, still in his early twenties, with curly brown hair and blue eyes that sparkled merrily.

The man heard the van coming up behind him. He turned his head and stuck out his thumb.

"Do you suppose his car broke down?" Max asked.

"I don't see a gas can," McAllister noted.

"Do you mind?" Max asked, slowing down without waiting for an answer. "It's awful wet."

McAllister shrugged. "It's your car. And this rain doesn't look like it's going to let up any time soon." The white-haired man did not bother to lecture Max on the dangers of picking up hitchhikers. He and Max were both able to take care of themselves. He was a ninja master, and Max was his apprentice.

Max pulled the van over to the side of the road. The thoroughly soaked hitchhiker hurried over to them. "Which way are you going?"

"South, to Sunnydale." The hitchhiker was in his mid-to-late thirties, and might have been considered handsome if he weren't currently doing a Rich Little-quality impersonation of a drowned rat. His eyes were brown, but his hair was so water-logged that Max couldn't tell if it was black or merely dark brown.

"We're not going that far, but we are headed in that direction. We can take you partway, at least give you a chance to dry off," Max invited. "Hop in."

"Thanks." He hurried to the back of the van, opened the door, and climbed in.

"If you check that duffle bag, I think there's a towel in there," McAllister called back.

"Thanks." Setting his backpack down, the hitchhiker grabbed the duffle bag and began rummaging through it.

"You should always know where your towel is," Max quoted.

The stranger chuckled. "You're a Douglas Adams fan?"

Max nodded. "Guilty as charged. Name's Max Keller."

"John Peter McAllister," the old man introduced himself. "And you are?"

"David Baxter," the hitchhiker lied. Finding the towel, he dried himself off as best he could.

"And this is Henry," Max introduced the hamster.

David looked at the hamster. "Hello, Henry." He took a second look at the cage. It looked like it was welded in place on top of the van's engine cover. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to make sure Henry was safe and comfortable.

The inside of the van had a comfortably cluttered feel to it – not so much messy as lived in. An overhead light provided illumination. A dirt bike was carefully secured so it wouldn't be jostled in transit. A somewhat tattered picture of a swimsuit clad Farrah Fawcett was taped to one wall. In addition to the duffle bag, there were some suitcases, a guitar case, and two sleeping bags carefully stowed to one side.

The three men talked about the weather for a few minutes, and then football. But in just a few questions, Max and McAllister heard deep, even breathing instead of answers. They lowered their voices, and continued discussing the San Diego Chargers game against the Green Bay Packers.

McAllister gently touched David's shoulder. "Mr. Baxter?" The dark-haired hitchhiker didn't stir. He shook him slightly. "David?"

"Huh?" Brown eyes opened.

"We're stopping for dinner. C'mon," McAllister invited.

"Um, I –"

"I'll treat," McAllister offered.

David hesitated, unwilling to accept charity, but not having much choice if he wanted to eat. And he was hungry.

"Since you've had a nap, maybe you'd be wiling to spell Max as driver?" McAllister asked. "He could use a break."

David nodded. That wasn't taking charity. That was barter.

"You must have been tired. You didn't even stir when we stopped for gas." McAllister led the way out of the van. "Oops." He nearly stepped on a magazine.

"Must have dropped that when I dozed off." David picked up the magazine.

It was folded over to an article. McAllister glanced at the title: 'A Comparison of the Effects of Gamma Radiation on Plant Cells and Animal Cells,' by Dr. Rose Morgan, Associate Professor of Biology, UC Sunnydale. "Just a little light reading?"

David shrugged. "I like science."

McAllister just nodded. It wasn't any of his business, and Lord knew, he had secrets enough of his own. But he sensed that David wasn't telling the whole truth.

The diner was older than David, but probably younger than McAllister, and a little shabby, but the smells coming from the kitchen were tempting. About half the tables were full, despite the fact it was only ten to five.

"Looks like we're not the only ones who decide to have an early dinner and get out of the rain," Max commented to the woman who led them to their table.

"Heaven knows we need it." She smiled at them and handed them laminated menus. "I'll check back with you in a couple minutes."

"Remember before the drought, when you automatically got a glass of water as soon as you sat down in a restaurant?" Max asked.

David shrugged. "It takes three glasses of water to wash one glass. That's four glasses of water expended for one that may only have a few sips taken out of it."

The waitress returned a minute later and took their orders. In just a few minutes they had their food.

Max reached over and pulled a napkin out of the rusty dispenser. After unfolding it and laying it on the table, he picked up the bun from his cheeseburger. He removed the lettuce and tomato and set them on the napkin. Noticing David's bemused glance, he explained, "For Henry."

"Oh." David dipped his spoon into his soup. Like a girl determined to be a 'cheap date,' David had ordered the cheapest thing on the menu: chicken rice soup and a cup of coffee. He took slow, small spoonfuls, as if he wanted to make it last. Or as if he hadn't had too much to eat recently, and didn't want to risk making himself sick.

"Good thing it's cool enough to leave Henry in the van," McAllister commented. "When it's hot, Max tucks him into his pocket and brings him inside."

"Do you know how hot a locked car can get?" Max asked rhetorically. "He's safer in the air conditioning, and probably better behaved than most kids."

McAllister merely harrumphed in agreement.

"So, what's in Sunnydale?" Max asked between bites of cheeseburger.

"Possible job," David replied. It was only half a lie. If he could get a job at the university, or near it, it would be easier to try to break into Dr. Morgan's lab. He'd taken a lot of odd jobs over the past few years – dishwashing, janitorial, gardening – for worse chances to find a cure for his 'problem.'

"Oh? What do you do?" Max asked, with friendly curiosity.

"Whatever I can find, the economy being what it is these days."  David shrugged.  "Reaganomics."

One white eyebrow rose. Again, McAllister had the impression David was telling only a half-truth. "My eyes were bigger than my stomach," he lied. "David, you have room for half a turkey sandwich?"

"If he doesn't, I do," Max volunteered.

"You've got hollow legs," McAllister complained, fond exasperation evident in his voice. He shot Max a warning look, silently telling him to let David eat the sandwich.

Suddenly the doors of the diner burst open. Two men in ski masks barged in. Both had guns in their gloved hands.

"Hands up!" one ordered. He had a Colt .45 – an old Navy service revolver, if McAllister were any judge of such things – and he held it like he knew what he was doing.

The other man had a .22, a Walther or perhaps a Smith & Wesson; McAllister couldn't tell at this distance. He was waving it around wildly.

Max tensed, ready for action. McAllister laid a restraining hand on his shoulder.

"Don't try anything stupid," McAllister whispered. "Too many people could get hurt if you decide to play hero."

Max frowned.

"Give us all the money in the cash register," the first man ordered.

The second man fired his pistol. One bullet flew into the ceiling. The other shattered the window of the booth next to theirs. "We mean business."

David flinched. The bullet hit the window only a foot away from him.

The man with the Colt gave his partner a sharp glance, then told the cashier. "Cash register. All the money. Now."

With fumbling fingers, she hurried to obey.

While the first bandit emptied out the cash register, his partner turned to the diner's customers. "Wallets, watches, jewelry."

Max looked from one bandit to the other. They were each concentrating on their own tasks, not backing each other up. He glanced at his teacher. McAllister shook his head.

When the bandit reached them, Max frowned, but made no move to resist as he dropped his wallet and watch into the waiting sack. David and McAllister did likewise.

When every customer had been robbed, the two robbers hurried for the door.

McAllister reached into his jacket pocket and removed something. He threw so quickly it seemed impossible that he had bothered to aim. Something small and metallic flew through the hole in the window.

Two shuriken pierced the getaway car's right rear tire. One struck the right front tire.The bandits got into their car, but only managed to drive a block away.The county sheriff had no trouble catching up with them. By the time the diner's customers had finished their dinners – including pie on the house – the sheriff's deputies had returned the stolen wallets.

When the deputies were taking everyone's name and address, David made up a street address. Even if he had a permanent residence, he wouldn't have dared tell them who he was or where he lived. He glanced suspiciously at McAllister. He knew the old man had done something, but he wasn't sure what. He didn't dare ask. A man who lives by lies has no business asking other people nosy questions. For a fugitive, truth and curiosity were luxuries, and minding his own business the safest course.

David took a deep breath. He'd managed to keep his self-control. He hadn't panicked. He hadn't lost his temper. And that was important. Far more important than asking the old man what he'd done.

His name wasn't David Baxter. It was Dr. David Banner. And ever since an accidental overdose of gamma radiation during an experiment that had gone horribly wrong, whenever he was hurt or enraged, he transformed. And given his druthers, he preferred to avoid the transformation.

The radio was playing a Mozart concerto. David hummed along as he drove.

"You like classical?" McAllister asked.

David nodded. "Very much."

"Max and I both do, too. Surprised me when we first met," McAllister admitted. "People his age don't generally appreciate the classics. I expected him to think of the Beatles as ancient, and to be ignorant of Beethoven, but he -- Look out!"

A dog ran into the road. David slammed on the brakes. The van skidded on the wet highway. Neither man breathed for a moment as David regained control of the van and resumed their course.

"Huh? What happened?" Max called from the back.

"Dog in the road," McAllister told him. "David had to swerve to avoid it."

"Is it okay?" Max asked.

McAllister smiled. Trust Max to ask after the dog first and his van second.

"It's fine," David called back. "Got away without a scratch." David exhaled deeply. The dog was all right, and he was all right. He hadn't lost control of the vehicle. He hadn't lost control of himself. He hadn't transformed.

A blue Ford swerved around them, passing them on the wet road. He blew his horn sharply, as if mocking them for their slower speed.

"Some people got their driver's licenses out of a box of Cracker Jacks," McAllister muttered.

"He's driving way too fast for this weather," David agreed.

"Southern California's not used to rain," Max called from the back of the van. "So nobody knows what to do when the roads are wet."

David's lips narrowed. It has been a night like this when his wife was killed. A night like this when he had been unable to save her. For a few moments he said nothing, nor did he truly hear the conversation between Max and McAllister as he tried to wrestle the memory away.

"Uh-oh," David murmured. He slowed the van down and pulled over to the side.

"What is it?" Max asked.

"Accident," McAllister replied succinctly.

Two cars sat by the side of the road, locked together in an obscene embrace. The blue Ford had hit the green Chevy on the driver's side. The Chevy had run into a telephone pole.

"I'm going to see if anyone's hurt," David announced. He set the parking brake and climbed out of the black van. McAllister followed a second later. Max appeared a moment later, the first aid kit in his hand.

David opened the driver's door of the Ford. "Are you all right?" He knew the answer to the question even as he asked. He felt the driver's neck, just to be sure. The jugular vein had no pulse. He sniffed. The scent of alcohol was strong.

David shut the door. "He's dead. What about them?"

"Alive, but hurt," McAllister yelled to him. He had to yell, to make his voice heard over the wind and rain.

"My head," the driver moaned. She was a blonde in her thirties, and attractive except for the bloody gash on her forehead. Suddenly she shrieked. "The children!"

"Mama, Mama, what happened?" whimpered a little girl.

"Kathleen? Teddy? Are you all right?" the anxious mother demanded.

"It hurts, Mama," Kathleen whimpered.

"Teddy?" The child did not respond. "Teddy!"

"Don't worry. We'll get you out," McAllister told the half-hysterical mother. He directed Max, "Go 'round to the other side. No way we'd be able to get them from here."

Max hurried to the right side of the car. He opened the back door, unbuckled Kathleen, and pulled her out. "You okay, honey?"

"I – I think so," she whimpered, bravely trying not to cry.

"Stay here," Max told her. "I've got a blanket in the van. We'll get you warm and dry in just a second, okay?"

Kathleen nodded.

McAllister stood by the driver's window of the green Chevy. David came up behind him.

"Switch places with me." The shy, diffident tone was gone now; his voice was filled with a calm authority that hadn't been there before. "Give me the flashlight." David shone the light into the woman's face. "Pupils unequal, but reactive." He reached through the broken window and felt her neck. "Pulse erratic. Probable concussion, possible internal bleeding. We need to get her to a hospital as soon as possible."

"If we put his car in neutral, do you think we could push it out of the way?" McAllister asked.

David looked at how the two cars were jammed together and shook his head. "I doubt it. "We'll have to try to get her out through the passenger side."

Max had climbed into the back seat and was unbuckling Teddy's seatbelt. "He's still unconscious. Is it safe for me to try to move him, or should I get on my bike and go for help?"

David tried to remember how far back the last payphone had been. "We may not have time to wait for help. Get him out, but move him very carefully." He turned to the woman. "Ma'am, can you unbuckle your seat belt? Are you able to move?"

She tried, shook her head, then groaned with the pain. "It won't come."

"I'll go round and cut it open," McAllister volunteered.

The woman tried to maneuver to a better position, then cried, "I can't move!"

"Don't worry. We'll get you out." The wind howled loudly, making his words barely audible.

Max gently lifted Teddy from the back seat.

"Do you need help getting him to the van?" McAllister asked.

Max shook his head. "He's light. I can make it."

McAllister nodded, then crawled into the front seat, knife in hand. He sawed away at the seatbelt.

Suddenly a bolt of lightning hit the pole. The wire fell down and struck David. He screamed.

"Are you all right?" McAllister started to ask. His mouth hung open, his eyes grew wide. He tried to tell himself that the dim light was fooling his old eyes. He couldn't possibly be seeing what he thought he saw.

David's skin changed hue, turning green. Emerald green. He grew. His body expanded, becoming taller, more muscular, and somehow … not quite human. His shirt ripped as his chest grew too big for the cloth confining it. David, or the thing he had become, roared.

"David?" McAllister called out.

"What is it?" Max hurried from the van, a blanket in his arms, ready to escort Kathleen to join her brother. He stared at the green man-thing. He swore. "The Hulk!"

"Get her into the van before she catches pneumonia," McAllister ordered his apprentice. He turned back to the creature that had been David. "We need to get her out of the car. Can you do it?"

The Hulk stared at him.

"Can you get this woman out of the car?" McAllister repeated. He wondered how much David could understand in this form.

Max cautiously approached the battered Chevy. "He's the Hulk," he murmured. "David's the Incredible Hulk." When McAllister didn't react to this information, he muttered, "I guess the National Register doesn't deliver to Tokyo." He wrapped the scared little girl in the blanket and hustled her back to the safety of the black van.

The Hulk stared at McAllister a moment longer. Then he pulled at the car door. The Ford jamming it shut quite effectively, it didn't open. So the Hulk turned around and lifted the Ford. He raised the car into the air, then tossed it down a few feet away. Grabbing the door of the Chevy, he tore it off the hinges and flung it away.

Teddy and Kathleen's mother screamed.

The scream made the Hulk draw back. The expression on his face was that of a frightened child. Lightning flashed again, close, but not on top of them. A moment later the thunder roared. The Hulk drew back, startled by the light and noise.

"David." McAllister's voice was low and gentle, his tone coaxing.

The Hulk stepped back. He turned and ran into the trees.

"David!" McAllister called.

"You gonna try going after him in this light?" Max asked. "We've got to get these people to a hospital."

"We can't just leave him out here," McAllister protested.

"He's the Hulk. He can take care of himself," Max pointed out.

"But they can't," McAllister acknowledged. He and Max extracted the woman from the car and carried her to the van. He gave one last look at the rain-soaked trees before they drove off, wondering where David was and what he was.

McAllister and Max wandered around the crash site, but the rain had washed away all sign of David … or the creature he became. McAllister frowned. He didn't want to abandon David, but he didn't dare let Teri's trail get cold. He was searching for his daughter, and they finally had a clue as to where to find her.

"I still can't believe it," Max repeated. "David, the Hulk? He seemed like such a nice guy. I always thought the Hulk was something the National Register made up to sell papers."

"Do you suppose he's transformed back to himself again, or is he still that … thing?" With twenty/twenty hindsight, McAllister put together the clues he'd noticed yesterday, but which had meant nothing to him at the time. After both the robbery and the incident with the dog, David had been relieved. McAllister realized now that he'd been aware of the possibility of his transformation, and dreading it, relieved each time that he hadn't turned into the Hulk.

Max shook his head. He wouldn't even attempt to guess something like that. "How long did you want to keep looking for him?"

"I hate to just abandon him. He saved that woman's life."

"I don't like abandoning him either, but this is the best chance we've had to find Teri in months," Max reminded his teacher. "You don't dare let her slip through your fingers again." Max mused that Teri must never have been a Girl Scout when she was young, or she would have learned the hug-a-tree rule for lost hikers. With Teri zigging and the Master zagging, Max wondered if they'd ever get together. It was hard to rescue a damsel in distress who wouldn't sit still and wait to be rescued.

McAllister nodded reluctantly.

"What should we do with his stuff?" Max asked. David had left his backpack in the van. "I guess we could turn it over to the police, say we found it …." Max's voice trailed off. He knew his suggestion wouldn't work even as the words left his mouth.

McAllister shook his head. He remembered how David had hesitated before giving the sheriff's deputy his name and address. He strongly suspected both were false. "Something tells me he's not the sort of fellow who would willingly approach the police for help." He glanced at a nearby tree. "Go get me some rope."

Max fetched some rope from the back of the van. McAllister removed his wallet from his pocket, pulled out two twenty-dollar bills, and tucked them into David's backpack. Tying one end of the rope around the backpack straps, McAllister tossed the other end up into the tree and over a branch. He hoisted the backpack up.

"Let's just hope that David is the first one to find it," the elderly ninja said.

Max nodded. He began walking back to the van.

McAllister looked around once more. "Good luck, David, whoever you are."

From the trees, a half-naked David Banner watched them drive away.